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Old Quarters

by Roberta Branca

part 1 of 2

“Can I keep it?”

“No, it’s your great-grandmother’s. Put it on the table.”

The voices drifted in and out of Ginny’s mind, and Ginny drifted in and out of the conversation although Cassandra, Isaiah, and Natalie didn’t know it.

Through narrow slits she created by crinkling her eyelids upward the tiniest fraction, Ginny could see Isaiah holding something round and silvery, not shiny silver but a dulled pewter. He turned it over and over in his hand before placing it on the metal bedside table. The sound of metal on metal was familiar, signifying some sort of security Ginny couldn’t quite identify.

With an intake of breath, Ginny’s opened her eyes wide, against her will, and her granddaughter Cassandra noticed. And began talking. “The house is all ready, Nana. We brought you most of your clothes, and packed away a few things to make room.”

“To make room” meant making room for Cassandra and Isaiah. Because Ginny was definitely moving out. Moved out. Moved in, actually, to a room of tubes and bright sunshine.

“I found a lot of money, Grandma,” Isaiah interjected.

“See, Isaiah brought one. An old quarter,” Cassandra said.

Ginny watched pictures of all the old quarters she could remember. Her first-apartment quarters in Cambridge, which she shared with her first lover. Well, her first live-in lover anyway. After that, there was her double-income, no-kids house that came with a husband. Big, shiny quarters and an underground pool.

And then there were the earthy-crunchy quarters she shared with her earthy-crunchy lover and their lovechild. Finally, at the age of 65 she had been able to afford her own quarters, where Cassandra had been spoiled and scolded both simultaneously and in turn, and had finally come of age in. The house she doted on for forty years and had hoped to spoil Isaiah in.

Now, at 105, she felt ready for these new quarters. Sunnier than the double-income, no-kids house. Caretakers more deeply committed to her well-being than her let’s-see-how-it-goes lover in Cambridge. It only lacked the deep-down neediness of children that inspired adults to rise to the occasion of taking care of someone else. In that respect, it could not, ever, measure up to either of her last two quarters.

She smiled, and popped her eyes open one more time before drifting off to sleep. She thought. Instead she was drifting awake to an empty room. Without raising the bed or any piece of her body, she turned her head and reached out to pick up the round silvery object Isaiah had left behind. It felt cold and was ridged on the sides. She held it directly in front of her eyes and willed herself to concentrate on keeping her lids in an upward position. Yes. An old quarter.

Ginny was surprised by its weightiness. It was heavier than the coins that had replaced it but of equal size and shape so that both kinds would fit into those vending machines that nobody used anymore. She turned it over and ran her thumb over the bas-relief minuteman standing in readiness to protect the time-worn phrase “In God We Trust” and “1999.”

She was 32 then, and breaking up with her first live-in lover in Cambridge. Next she turned it so she could stare at the profile of the Founding Father, whatshisname. He loomed closer and closer, forcing Ginny’s pupils to adjust until his image engulfed her eyesight. Then she was inside and through the quarter.

She was staring at the profile of her first lover, who was turned to the window and would not look at her. “You’re not serious,” he said quietly, politely. His profile was sharp and fine. He had luxurious hair, chestnut brown and tied back in a ponytail and a body sculpted at numerous gyms, which seemed to pop up on every street corner. A cliché from Hollywood or maybe the pages of GQ. Ginny was trying to remember his name. She wondered if it would be easier to remember from the other side of the quarters.

“We can’t get married,” he said half-reasonably, half-pleading. “Marriage has no meaning, it’s just paper. A remnant of the patriarchy.” He reached, desperately, for the one argument sure to win over a feminist in the 1990s. But the tide was already turning then. Women were buying back into the patriarchy, according to the media. More accurately, choosing which elements of the patriarchy to keep and reshape, and which to throw away. “I don’t have the money to marry you,” the Lover said, clinging to the piece of the patriarchy Ginny intended to throw away.

“What the hell is your name?” Ginny was afraid she would scream it out loud soon.

“Ginny? Remember? Our vision, what we wanted to be for each other?” He turned from the window at last. And he began to drone. On and on, about shared values, their plans for a shapeless future. Ginny reached for a name. He grasped her shoulders, lovingly. So tender. Yes. This is how it always was. Never sharp with each other, never biting or cutting or rude. He was pulling her closer, rubbing her shoulders with deeper motions, leaning in and pulling her even closer.

“I have to leave,” Ginny said. A simple release, and she was on the other side of the room again and still trying to remember his name.

The books and the CDs were the easiest to sort. Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Janis Joplin. All hers. The harder part was the stuff: the knick-knacks, mementos, souvenirs. Who owned which memory? Ginny sat cross-legged on the grayish white matted-down rug and studied the options.

The assemble-yourself melamine bookcases. The seashell collection, the photos taken in Provincetown, climbing Mount Monadnock, and the one with both sets of parents in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Lover sat on the futon couch, one leg crossed over the other, silently declining to help.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of Ginny’s U-Haul. Her sister Maureen supplied chatter and arm power, motivating the Lover to participate.

Even the narrow, winding stairs and the necessity to step aside for one another while transporting boxes was not enough incentive for talking. Finally, Ginny closed and locked the back gate of the truck and opened the passenger side door of the front cab while the Lover stood watching on the sidewalk. As she ducked her head to sit in the truck, the Lover spoke. “Goodbye, Ginny. Take care of yourself.”

Ginny looked up, into his eyes, and smiled. “Goodbye, Tony.”

* * *

At the moment the truck pulled away from the curb, Ginny had been an adjunct, teaching English per diem at Lesley University, Simmons College, and Boston University. All the other academics her age were envious because she managed to pull together a full class schedule, even if it was at three different colleges in two different cities.

Lying in her shiny child-free room, Ginny remembered the stop-and-go motion of the truck, her boxes slamming against the walls of the truck every time Maureen stopped short, which was often.

The quarter in Ginny’s hand was no longer cold. It was not warm either, merely devoid of its steely chilling coldness in spite of the air conditioning wafting from mysterious pinholes in the ceiling. 1999, of course, was the Year of the Y2K Doomsday. Ginny recalled the weeks before the dreaded January 1, with “Terrorist Threat” flashing across her television screen and coiffed newsmen informing her that the latest terrorist rumors were false. Then the startling revelation that the New Millennium would not start until 2001, because there was no Year 0 A.D.

Perhaps that was the reason the terrorist chose an arbitrary Tuesday in September, 2001. Ginny was as mesmerized as anyone by the smoke billowing out of the towers, the buildings crumbling, the ashes covering pedestrians as they ran for their lives.

Ginny wondered then if the A.D. calendar started with the year 1 because zero hadn’t been invented yet, and she still wondered now. Several evenings after the attacks, Ginny and Maureen sat on the balcony of their Davis Square apartment, imagining what it would have been like if zero had never been invented. Ginny opened her eyes with a start.

“Saved By Zero” by somebody-or-other blared from one boom box and “Like A Virgin” blared from another one, while the odd steamed-vegetable smell from the cafeteria permeated the outdoor smoking area. She and her best friend wore oversized T-shirts that hung to their knees over black stirrup pants. Ginny’s said “Relax. Don’t Do It” on the front and “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” on the back. Her friend’s said “In Vietnam He Was ... 19.” In the center was a war picture, fuzzy and hard to distinguish.

Ginny was four when she saw her first photo image of the Vietnam War. She remembered walking into a doctor’s office, the red-bordered cover of Time magazine catching her eye. Inside the red frame was a soldier’s face, so close to the camera you could see the pores of his skin under the black and green streaks on his face. Dirt and blood smeared his face and all around him was smoke, jungles, and helicopters.

Then a hand surreptitiously inserted itself into Ginny’s line of vision and her mother turned the magazine over so Ginny could read the Vodka ad on the back. Ginny didn’t know what Vodka was yet, and her mother didn’t know she could read yet.

* * *

Ginny tried to concentrate again on the quarters. The tire swing in the back yard, and a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator. What color was the house? Who were her friends? She must have had some. Who was her best friend in the last century?

Whoever she was, she was standing over the Stinky Spot in her own yard. The grass over the Stinky Spot was greener than the rest of the yard, and it grew thicker. Its conspicuous appearance that summer made it a convenient No Man’s Land for games that required it, a dungeon for their various games about knights, witches, or princesses, and Home Free for Hide and Seek.

Later in the summer, her friend’s father would complain to the town about sewage contamination in the brook that ran behind their houses, only to find that it came from a leaking pipe in his own yard. At that particular frozen moment in time, though, the Stinky Spot was the coolest spot in the neighborhood. All Ginny had to offer in her yard was the dumb old tire swing and a hill for sledding in the winter.

“Ollie Ollie Humfree!” Ginny’s best friend called from her safe spot. Neighborhood children poured out from behind trees, from underneath the car in the driveway, and from under bushes.

* * *

The quarter was getting truly warm now. Ginny was clutching it tightly, in joy or terror she could not tell. It had been years since she thought of childhood in this way, as a collection of images that could terrify or delight her. There were voices in the hallway; her dinner was arriving. Ginny reached for, and pressed, the button to raise her bed. She stared at the gleaming white wall in front of her. When the tray was brought in, she tried to hide her dismay at the bland steamed-vegetables smell.

“Good evening, Ms. McIntyre,” Katrina sang brightly. Katrina was the dinner-tray delivery person. Ginny supposed she was what used to be called a Candy Striper, but she wore no uniform except gleaming white walking shoes with thick rubber soles.

“What have you got there?” As Katrina rolled the tray-table over Ginny’s bed, she plucked the quarter from Ginny’s hand. “Old money. Look.” Katrina turned to show the quarter to her male counterpart in the doorway. Ginny blinked to show her displeasure but the effervescent Katrina didn’t see the motion.

Ginny reached up with one hand to scratch the numb side of her face. She didn’t like to get the other half of her face working when strangers were in the room. She was embarrassed by the guttural noises that passed for speech and the twitches that served for facial expressions. She continued to play possum while Katrina walked around the bed to place the quarter on the far side of the table, just out of Ginny’s reach.

“Will you be the boss of me?”

“Hell, no.”

“Good answer.” Ginny threw her arms around Gerry’s shoulders, standing on tiptoe to accommodate his 6-foot frame. He clasped her tightly around the waist and they kissed deeply.

At 39, Ginny found herself pregnant but not by her husband. Gerry sold Non-Genetic Organic foods, known as NGO food, which was regularly Cuisinarted or barbecued by Ginny and her husband. Their affair started as an Internet romance, beginning with a friendly email dispute about a bill and consummated when non-delivered orders conveniently required trips to Gerry’s farm.

She moved out of the oversized house in Bedford and onto the farm in central Massachusetts two weeks before Natalie was born. Gerry continued to manufacture genetically pure foods and Ginny took over the Internet business, giving her time and resources to devote to her writing. For five years, she tapped away at her keyboard to the sounds of her child, some perpetually irate chickens, and cheerful birds that sang so constantly they were a cliché.

A knock at her study door broke her contented reverie at 10 o’clock one morning. Ginny frowned, but called for the interloper to come in. Seven-year-old Natalie, long blonde hair framing her face and tiny Doc Martens encasing her feet, solemnly sat on the couch opposite Ginny’s computer.

“What are you doing, sweetie? Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m watching you work. It’s Take Your Daughter to Work Day, so I came home. I was the only girl at school today!” Natalie burst into tears.

“What about Jeanine? She lives with her father,” Ginny said gently.

“He took her to work,” Natalie sniffled.

“But he’s a construction foreman.”

“I know. She’s probably going to get to ride in a big crane all day.” Natalie continued to sob.

In a few years, Ginny would watch her daughter drift effortlessly onto the stage for plays, musicals, comedy routines, anything to satisfy her dramatic nature. As it was, this was Natalie’s first year of separation from her mother and Ginny was devastated by her selfish neglect of her daughter’s need for a modern role model.

Ginny took a job with a local college. As paltry as her paycheck was, it was entirely her own so she started a college fund for Natalie.

Natalie was fifteen when Ginny’s ex-husband Ray materialized out of nowhere. Ginny came home one day to find him sitting in their living room, drinking tea with her daughter. Ginny was speechless. So was Ray. Natalie, however, was in full drama mode. She leaped up from her chair and pointed an accusatory finger at Ginny.

“Why didn’t you tell me I had two fathers?” She wailed.

“What are you talking about? That’s not your father,” Ginny said.

“I could easily be her biological father,” Ray stated.

“No—” Ginny began, but Natalie cut her off. “He told me all about how he stuck by you through your pregnancy, and how you left him after I was born.”

“That’s not how it happened,” Ginny said. At that moment, Ray turned hard, glittering eyes in her direction. She realized he’d planned this revenge, waiting for years to make a move.

“Don’t lie to the child,” Ray chided sanctimoniously. “I intend to file a paternity suit, and in the meantime, Natalie is free to visit me at any time.”

The threatened court action never materialized, as a simple DNA test quickly established that Gerry, and not Ray, was Natalie’s father. All the same, once Natalie had a taste of rebellion by befriending Ray, the woman-child brought up her mother’s previous marriage in every mother-daughter confrontation.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Branca

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